The northwest corner of the country has long drawn adventurous spirits and intrepid souls. No doubt, much of the Pacific Northwest’s present-day character stems from its rich and storied past as one of the country’s “last frontiers."
In the mid-19th century, this exquisite region–with its promise of untapped resources and untouched terrain–lured waves of pioneers who risked their lives relocating to this land where American Indians had dwelled for thousands of years. Many westward-moving settlers dreamed of finding inexpensive land, riches of gold and silver plus luxuries like political freedom and independence.
Visitors today can step back in time in several “Wild West” theme towns–some that resemble a Hollywood backlot, others that subtly mix the flavors of their past with forward-looking nods to the future.
The Ellensburg Rodeo gallops into town every September — Photo courtesy of Melissa Dismuke
In Central Washington, just east of the Cascade Range on Interstate 90, visitors find a charming town that still honors its cowboy roots. While nearby draws range from nature hikes and river rafting adventures to concerts at the spectacular gorge, the historic town bustles during annual events like the Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering that welcomes sights and sounds from the past every February. During the gathering, cowboys stroll the streets of downtown Ellensburg, mingling with locals and visitors alike; other highlights include performances by singers and poets, fiddle contests, roping demos, even a Cowboy Gospel Concert.
Then there's the Ellensburg Rodeo, one of the country's top professional rodeos, that began in 1923 with the same volunteer spirit that fuels the vibrant event today. Over the decades, the rodeo has expanded from a local competition among ranch hands to a professional extravaganza that boasts more than 600 contestants and prize money exceeding $400,000. From September 4 through 7, today's best riders, ropers and wrestlers will compete in what many consider to be the best rodeo arena in the nation; the Friday night opening performance leads to the Saturday and Sunday afternoon “perfs” and then, ultimately, the Labor Day Monday Championship Finals.
Visitors keen to experience a true Western theme town–with throwback storefronts and a vintage vibe–head to Winthrop in North Central Washington's Methow Valley, a 60-mile-long glacial valley. This outdoors hub attracts adventurers thanks to its extensive cross-country skiing network (more than 120 miles of groomed trails) as well as abundance of warm-weather activities like hiking, mountain biking, river rafting, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, golfing and more. Annual festivals include the Winthrop Balloon Festival, Rhythm and Blues Festival and the Methow Valley Rodeo.
In 1972, architect-designer Robert Jorgenson of Leavenworth was hired to revamp the destination's exterior, and he aimed "to make the design as authentic as possible in order to preserve the spirit of the valley." (Chet Endrezzi designed the original signs that also help maintain the Old West feel.) The Methow Valley experience still includes cattle drives, medicine shows, pack trains and "the mystique of the old west;" the town is located in a wilderness- and wildlife-rich region.
The Whitman Mission National Historic Site enlightens present-day visitors on the region's rich historical past — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
About 270 miles east of Seattle, near the Blue Mountains, a picturesque desert oasis dots the southeast corner of Washington state. This small town of 30,000 often gets labeled as one of the country's friendliest. Here, residents live by the seasons–closely connected to the land.
Downtown's historic Main Street whisks visitors away to a slower, simpler time, and a cowboy-meets-chic vibe flavors spaces that range from upscale and sleek to down-home and welcoming. Walla Walla is a unique dichotomy of lifestyles, merging together a world that celebrates "the good life" (think all things wine- and food-centric) and the region's industrious workers who bring this way of life to fruition.
Here, high-end restaurants pair local wine varieties with innovative farm-to-table dishes, while omnipresent, no-frills food trucks showcase tasty Mexican staples like flautas and Walla Walla tacos (that feature the region's sweet onions). Along Main Street, visitors find hip tasting rooms next to charming boutiques that stock bedazzled cowboy boots. In Walla Walla, everyone can find a reason to hang his or her hat and stay a while.
Annual events range from Spring Release Weekend (every May) to Fall Release Weekend (every November)–with lots in between. In summer months, visitors flock here to trot on horseback, cycle, ride hot air balloons and wander among the 100-plus vineyards (and 1,800 acres of grapes) that have gained this region a reputation as the next Napa Valley. Music revelers will want to pencil in August 14 and 15, when the town hosts one of the Gentleman of the Road Stopover Festivals (featuring The Flaming Lips, Mumford & Sons, Dawes, etc).
Wagons that carried pioneers along the Oregon Trail can still be seen today just outside Walla Walla — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Roslyn and Cle Elum
Around this region, visitors can experience pieces of the coal-mining, pioneering past, thanks to an historical walk (with markers) that runs along the preserved route of the Coal Mine Trail. Northern Pacific Railway constructed a branch line between Cle Elum and Roslyn in 1886 (and onward to Ronald in 1887) that transported coal, as well as local residents.
Located just 80 miles from Seattle, visitors today enjoy Roslyn's teeny, charming town–once the filming site for exterior scenes on the TV show Northern Exposure. Outdoors enthusiasts gather here to take advantage of nearby hiking trails, campgrounds and ski slopes, as well as to refuel at one of the few eateries that line the main street. A must-visit, the Brick Saloon, makes its mark as Washington’s oldest continuously operating bar, established in 1889. Nearby, Suncadia offers luxurious lodge-resort accommodations.
Roslyn's "downtown" keeps its charming, dated vibe — Photo courtesy of Melissa Dismuke
A hundred-some miles east of Seattle, visitors to the Yakima Valley find omnipresent evidence of a former Wild West identity. This region boasts 300 sunny days a year and was once a dust bowl; these days, tumbleweed towns rub shoulders against thriving, cutting-edge wineries.
Visitors up their historical knowledge quotient at the Yakima Nation Cultural Heritage Center (established in 1980) which also houses the Yakama Nation Museum (one of the oldest Native American Museums in the country), a gift shop, the Heritage Theatre, the Winter Lodge (an iconic building) and the Yakama Nation Library.
In Toppenish, the old 1911 Northern Pacific Railway depot has been reopened as the Northern Pacific Railway Museum, an attempt to re-create the ambience of the 1930 Northern Pacific Railroad. The depot has been restored to its early appearance, and visitors view artifacts and learn about the importance of railroad transportation to the development of America's West.
On the Toppenish Murals Walking Tour, participants view depictions–on buildings and billboards–that capture the history of the first settlers and the culture of those who lived in Toppenish between 1840 and 1940. On the largest outdoor mural tour in the state, visitors learn that more than 75 such murals enliven this small town.
Happy exploring, visitors, in the land when pioneering is still highly encouraged.